Broadband, hardship assistance, child care are all high priorities for Lewis County residents, survey finds

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By Eric Rosane / [email protected]

Survey results released this month by Polco found that Lewis County residents believe that investments in broadband internet infrastructure and economic support for small businesses, as well as services and programs that support healthy environments for children, are among the highest priorities as the county considers how best to invest portions. of its $15.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.

Late last year, Lewis County commissioned two countywide surveys to engage voters on how the funds should be spent. A total of 891 residents and 204 managers or business owners responded to the pair of surveys.

Participants were asked not only what they believed to be the highest priority for spending, but also on quality of life, government performance, economic impact and outlook, and the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The county plans to poll the public again later this summer, county spokesman Austin Majors said.

“Part of that is getting the public’s perception of how these things are going, and so being able to see if any of those perceptions are changed or affected by the work that’s going on would be something we would like be aware as well,” Majors said.

The county received the first half of its ARPA funds — about $7.83 million — last May and will likely receive the second half after May, budget officer Becky Butler said.

The American Rescue Plan Act is a congressional stimulus package that was originally passed early last year, designating $350 billion in local investments, following on from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) previously adopted.

ARPA funds, which have been distributed to local governments, can be used to support the public health response to COVID-19, replace lost public sector revenue, invest in sewers or broadband infrastructure, make deal with the negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, or offer support to essential workers, according to a Lewis County fact sheet.

At an ARPA update meeting hosted by the Lewis County Board of Commissioners last week, Commissioner Lee Grose – whose district encompasses the vast rural county of East Lewis – said he was surprised to see broadband being such a priority for residents and business owners.

“That should give us some direction,” Grose said from his home in Packwood, as his internet connection went down and out. “We definitely need better broadband here.”

Survey results

The survey results largely focused on county residents and local business owners.

Some of the most critical funding categories for residents who participated in the survey include “investments in broadband infrastructure”, “services or programs to promote healthy environments for children (e.g. a economic relief and assistance to small businesses and non-profits experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic.

Business owners also said investments in broadband were a priority, but instead prioritized “services to meet pandemic-increased behavioral healthcare needs (e.g., mental health treatment , addiction services, helplines, etc.)” and “financial assistance to very poor schools. districts to help narrow the achievement gap.

Among residential respondents, 69% agreed that broadband investments were “essential” or “very important”. For business owners, that number was 81%.

Majors said residents and business owners are acutely aware of the need for a robust broadband rollout in Lewis County. Local business owners and residents surveyed had also taken each other’s needs into consideration, Majors said, which is evident from the heavy emphasis placed on both boosting local businesses and investing in behavioral health services. .

“Not only was it something they were considering, but something that showed up in the most important funding categories. So residents identified that about businesses, and businesses identified that about residents. in the most important funding categories,” he said.

Professional users want to use the funding to reduce gaps in educational outcomes through financial assistance to high-poverty school districts. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the business survey rated this investment as “significant”.

Both populations also identified the economy and public services as among Lewis County’s lower quality attributes, but among the most personally important categories.

Around 34% of residents said they thought the economy would have a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” impact on their family income over the next six months, while around 49% said it would have a “neutral” impact. When asked the same question, about 52% of business owners said the economy would have a “neutral” or “somewhat negative” impact.

For businesses and residents, Lewis County continues to score high in its “natural environment”, “parks and recreation” and “safety” attributes.

Residents of Lewis County said it was ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ to focus on the economic health of the county (81%), the quality of infrastructure, including sewers and broadband (84% ), and overall safety (77%) over the next 12 months.

Households also struggled to find affordable, quality housing. About 41% of residents said it was a “major” or “moderate” issue during the pandemic, although about 22% said the question was “not applicable.”

About 31% of residents in the survey said they rented their homes, while 69% said they owned. While rental prices remain low compared to other counties in the region, according to previous Chronicle reports, supply remains tight and about one in four renters are paying 50% or more of their income for housing costs.

Currently, about 62% of Lewis County business owners say a drop in business or sales is either a “minor issue” or “not an issue at all.” Around 15% said it was currently a “major problem”.

But earlier in the pandemic, the picture is much more varied.

More than a third (34%) of businesses surveyed said they experienced a revenue shortfall of 10-24%, while more than one in four (26%) reported a “severe shortage” of 25% or more .

The “biggest issues” for businesses remain the shortage of qualified employees (35%), the affordability of broadband Internet services (30%) and access to broadband services (35%).

Since the start of the pandemic, about 73% of companies surveyed said they had not had to lay off their workforce.

Of the 204 businesses surveyed by the county, an overwhelming majority were small businesses (88%), with one to nine employees (72%) and locally based (96%). Most said they were in manufacturing and production (27%); professional services such as business, finance or technology (21%) or in retail (15%).

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